Bill Rieflin (September 30, 1960 - March 24, 2020)
Bill Rieflin's passing after a lengthy battle with cancer in 2020 provoked an outpouring from an impressively broad range of musicians. Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea, Robyn Hitchcock, Swans' Michael Gira members of R.E.M with whom he played and recorded from 2003–2011, and many others all paid tribute to his qualities as a musician and a person.
His solo album, Birth Of A Giant on the First World Music label he co-founded explored his interest in alt-rock and saw him step up as a vocalist. Though not released until 1999 the sessions for that album originally recorded in 1996 also spawned another very different collection. Entitled The Repercussions Of Angelic Behaviour, it featured a sequence of furious, energetic improvisations featuring Bill drumming alongside Trey Gunn and Robert Fripp. Not quite an official KC offshoot or ‘projeKct’ as the Double Trio’s research and development period was known, it provided ample evidence of Bill’s surging power as a drummer and his razor-sharp responses to a rapidly-changing environment.
The description of Rieflin as "the best drummer King Crimson never had" was rendered redundant when Robert Fripp reconvened King Crimson in 2013 and asked Bill to be part of it. In 2014 Bill reflected on his joining the band. “I knew that Fripp had been considering new Crimson possibilities, but if I ever did entertain the notion of playing in the band it was only as a passing entertainment. When Robert asked me to do this, by my reckoning I spent about half an hour, if not longer, attempting to talk him out of it; basically me just saying ‘Are you sure?’, ‘Do you know what I do?’, ‘Is this really what you want?’. And then it came to be at the end of the conversation that I was the right guy for the right job and at that point you can’t say no. If I’m the right guy for the right job then you have to say yes.”
Rieflin had a lot of history with Crimson. “The first time I saw them was at Seattle’s Shoebox Theatre, 30 November 1981. One of the guitarists referred to a particularly disruptive audience as ‘a wart on the ivory skin of innocence’. These facts are easy to tell. More difficult to describe is the significance of the music’s impact on my life. I remember wishing it was louder. I could sit and tell you stories about every record I heard and where I was and what it was like, and all the shows but if I can distill it in any way, I would say that to me the records had life. There was a life in those records as well as intensity. Those two qualities go hand-in-hand. Maybe the intensity was simply a characteristic of the life I was hearing within the music. So within the music I heard life and a quality of that life was intensity. That’s a fucking quote for you!”
In Crimson Bill brought his own distinctive presence to King Crimson’s repertoire when the group toured the USA in 2014. Fripp’s placing of Rieflin at the stage centre was no accident. “My role in Crimson is that I’m the man in the middle at the front and I’m also the middle point of the big triangle behind me. The role or the job of any musician in or out of Crimson is to be present to the performance, to the experience. I’m in a position physically where I can take in the big picture in a way. As I understood, I came to see that as my role as a drummer in many rock bands. Behind everything I can see out and really keep the overview, keeping my attention wide open for as long and as great an intensity as possible. I think one of the primary currencies of King Crimson is intensity in my view. Intensity can manifest in a variety of different ways. It doesn’t have to be loud. It doesn’t have to be abrasive. It can be quiet and very quiet and still gripping.”
Bill’s unfailingly dapper presence belied a cancer diagnosis that pre-dated his membership of King Crimson. Keeping it private, he fought the disease with a distinct absence of self-pity. As his condition worsened, requiring invasive surgery as well as a punishing regime of chemotherapy, his ability to continue in the band was diminished, resulting in him taking a sabbatical in 2015 and then ultimately his standing down. The reason behind his absence was never publically revealed at the time "I’ve never made my personal life a part of my public life. If there’s anything interesting about me, it’s what I do with music,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017.
At the same time as dealing with his illness, a bad situation was made even worse after his wife, the artist Francesca Sundsten, whose striking works graced King Crimson’s album covers and tour posters from 2014 onwards, also received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Like Bill aged in her late 50s, Frankie's death in 2019, was something that hit hard yet remarkably was a burden Bill bore with equanimity. That they both died so young and with so much still ahead of them is such a tragedy and makes their passing even more deeply upsetting.
Robert Fripp pays tribute to Bill Rieflin
14.54 Much laughing and many tears here at FripCox House today. If tears are a blessing, today we are blessed indeed. When Everything Falls Away, What Remains? Bill Rieflin was first diagnosed with...
Bill Rieflin with King Crimson
Live at the Orpheum (2015)
Live In Toronto (2016)
Radical Action To Unseat The Monkey Mind (2016)
Live In Chicago (2017)
Meltdown: Live in Mexico City (2018)